The Red Tide and the Dead Zone

gulf_of_mexico_dead_zone It sounds a little like the title of a book you might find in the thriller section of your local bookstore, but I assure you that I’m not in a literary mood. In fact, my title describes two phenomenons that are currently dangerously affecting the Gulf of Mexico, among other oceanic locations across the planet.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several weeks reporting on ‘dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico. It really is a bit of a scary thought, to consider the depleting of oxygen out of entire bodies of water. Such a situation makes for, as you might imagine, uninhabitable waters for animals, corals and plant life.

The dead zone that has nothing to do with Anthony Michael Hall in the Gulf of Mexico, exists at the exit of the Mississippi River. My friendly online information source, Wikipedia, provides the following information on the Mississippi River basin.

The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin (“catchment”) in the world, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon River and Congo River. It drains 41% of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles (3,225,000 km²), including all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

If nothing else, that’s a large part of the continental United States. But what it means – sadly – for the Gulf of Mexico, and subsequently the Florida peninsula, is not good.

I discovered just the other day in reporting for Daily Galaxy on dead zones that fertilizer and pesticide run-off from rural farmland as far north as Wisconsin and Minnesota. So all along the Mississippi, there are parts of the country filtering their poisonous run off into one of the world’s longest rivers.

Subsequently, especially after the increase in corn production thanks to the ethanol fuel craze, levels of nitrogen and phosphorous making their way south to the Gulf have increased.

Currently, there are more than 140 dead zones across the planet, with the largest being in the Gulf of Mexico, measuring in at the size of New Jersey. The hypoxic levels will only continue to increase as well, considering that there is very little being done – especially in the US – to combat this problem.

However, while dead zones are bad enough, the Gulf of Mexico is facing a similar and related problem; Red Tides.

Once again, our friends at Wikipedia come to the rescue with a succinct Courtesy of NOAA description of just what a red tide is;

“Red Tide” is a common name for a phenomenon known as an algal bloom, an event in which estuarine, marine, or fresh water algae accumulate rapidly in the water column, or “bloom”. These algae, more specifically phytoplankton, are microscopic, single-celled protists, plant-like organisms that can form dense, visible patches near the water’s surface.

Now at first, I thought that I was just reporting on the same thing twice. You see, I knew that the Mississippi River was causing havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, but then I started reading reports about the western Florida coast being affected by red tides. These red tides, according to reports from the AP and reproduced almost everywhere, were also in part caused by run-off from the Mississippi River.

Naturally, I managed to find a correlating link between the two, thanks to a report written by Elizabeth Carlisle for the University of Tulane in New Orleans. The nitrogen and phosphorous that I mentioned are making their way down the Mississippi and contributing to the hypoxic Gulf, are also breeding grounds for cyanobacteria, microflagellates and dinoflagellates.

These three little buggers are responsible for the formation of red tides, named for their brownish / reddish hue (though, misleading considering that there are numerous colorations attributed to algal blooms). These algal blooms – another name for red tides – do further damage to oceanic ecosystems, paralyzing the respiratory systems of marine animals.

And, as if it couldn’t get any worse, of the thousands of algae that compromise the base of the marine food chain, approximately 85% have been documented as being toxic.

Both dead zones and red tides subsequently disturb the food chain, not to mention the dead zones deadly (sorry) lack of oxygen in its waters. And while the red tide off the Florida coast is not toxic, it does exacerbate the oxygen depletion that the neighboring dead zone is already causing.

As mentioned above, there is really no sign of change either, with scientists resorting to their stereotypical fall-back line “more research is needed” and the US government continuing to ignore the problem. All hail the conquering nation, huh?

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